When the wine is flowing freely, no one really turns their attention to the hangover that awaits after the party’s over. Having squandered energy and natural resources for decades, what do we do now?
In a nutshell, here is the single most consequential and indisputable fact of life: the world runs on energy. Everything that exists on Earth is part of a vast and interconnected system, and that system is utterly and completely dependent upon energy from one source or another to sustain itself. And here’s another, closely related fact: people and economies tend to flourish in times of cheap, abundant sources of energy. Contrarily, in times of dwindling resources, high cost of recovery and distribution, and unquenchable demand, the world can easily fall onto hard times.
Much of the world now finds itself in the midst of a global recession the likes of which have not been seen for many years. And, from all reliable evidence, recovery from our current financial doldrums appears a frighteningly long way off. Much of the explanation for our present circumstances stems from the fact that for a substantial length of time, we’ve been consuming and expending (i.e., wasting) energy like drunken sailors, squandering our precious resources in the process, and doing our best to ignore or put off the inevitable day of reckoning.
There are some who say that the solution to our plight is simply to ramp up exploration, mining, and production of our known but non-renewable sources of energy and increase supplies to the point where we can again consume abundantly and cheaply, and thus fuel another age of robust growth. But others argue that such an approach only forestalls the inevitable depletion of our resources, hastens an unpleasant rendezvous with destiny, and does irreparable damage to our environment in the process. There is no shortage of opinion when it comes to the politics of energy.
There are those who style themselves as pragmatists and argue that while we certainly must find better, more renewable, less environmentally toxic ways to satisfy our energy needs someday, we must at least ensure abundant supply from traditional sources now if we’re to maintain any sort of prosperity. Increase production and supply of traditional sources now, they argue, while simultaneously developing more renewable, cleaner sources for tomorrow. This argument has been made many times over the last 60 years. The problem is that it always seems any motivation to pursue alternative energy solutions dwindles or disappears altogether during relatively good times for the existing chains of energy supply. It’s simply human nature that when the wine is flowing freely, no one really turns their attention to the hangover that awaits after the party’s over.
There are also idealists who simply can’t let themselves compromise dreams for a new, cleaner, energy efficient world by allowing for the fact that traditional sources of energy are still the most cost-effective ways to fuel the demands of an active, free economy. For some, the entrenched systems of resource exploitation, conversion, and delivery are inherently evil and must be thwarted at every turn and at all cost. Acknowledging that we’re still a long way off from an abundant alternative energy supply, the solution they propose is reversion to a simpler, less sophisticated, less wasteful, and less polluting lifestyle. In other words, we should head backwards until advances in science and technology can allow us to move forward again without doing any damage.
Energy is arguably the principal concern of our time. But the deeply divided politics of energy makes it highly unlikely we’ll solve our energy woes anytime soon. As a result, economies will continue to falter and the well-being of many will continue to be negatively impacted. Still, I remain optimistic.
In May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued an historic challenge before the U.S. Congress. Land a human being on the moon and return safely to Earth within a decade, he exhorted, and the “space race” that ensued not only saw the realization of that dream, but spurred the development of technologies that literally changed the world, and at unprecedented speed. I think the same is possible with the energy question. But it would take the same degree of resolve. Still, if we put our collective mind to the goal of achieving abundant, cheap, clean, renewable energy for all within a decade, even if we don’t reach such a lofty target, the positive fallout from the endeavor itself could easily exceed the benefits derived from the space race. When we put our political, economic, and philosophical differences aside and really put our minds to it, we might just succeed!
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